Thursday, February 14, 2013

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Hands on With Versu: First Impressions After My First Hour With Linden Lab's Latest Storytelling App

Versu 1

Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

This morning Linden Lab launched Versu, an interactive storytelling app for the iPad (other platforms are in the works) with a relatively respectable pedigree behind it. Hamlet posted an overview of Versu as well as its launch trailer earlier today, so I wanted to talk about what it's like to actually use this app, and what I think of it beyond the trailers and the PR (a bit like what I did with dio almost exactly 2 weeks ago.)

Roll up your sleeves because this might get messy.

I should be clear right off the bat that I'm a fan of interactive fiction, so I'm not going to automatically dislike anything that LL does that doesn't look explicitly and traditionally "game-like". I appreciate interactive storytelling and visual novels (I've even made some, and played with various VN creation tools myself), and people like Christine Love are on my list of personal idols. When I hear Emily Short's name, I associate it fondly with a few pieces of ergodic writing that I studied in school as much as with some of her work on casual gaming review site Jay is Games. Launching Versu on Valentine's day might even be a purposeful nod to the app's launch titles, written by Short, a couple of which deal with 19th century courtship.

And yet I can't say that it's been love at first sight between me and Linden Lab's latest app, and I'll get into why shortly.

Here's what you need to know about Versu:

Imagine you were reading a book on Kindle or iBooks or your tablet reader of choice, and when you started that book you got to choose the particular character that you wanted to follow. You could be Pip or Stella or even Miss Havisham, and the story you see would change based on that choice. You can also choose how to act or react to situations, and the story changes accordingly. Most of the currently available stories seem to have different possible endings, so the choices you make can potentially influence the outcome.

Versu 2

So far, this is pretty standard visual novel and interactive fiction stuff, right? These choices come up at forced intervals, but beyond that there are also lots of occasions where you can choose to act spontaneously or to remain inactive, and that feature is what really caught my eye while I played. You might want you character to express something in the middle of another character's monologue, for example, rather than waiting for the action prompt at the end, and that's something I definitely haven't seen too often. And yes, I find that totally enjoyable.

Versu offers four interactive stories currently, as well as a store that will presumably offer new stories as they become available.

Here's what I love about it:

As I mentioned, I enjoy Emily Short's writing. This could be an Emily Short app and I would get it and love it and be entirely happy with nothing more.

The ability to act/react at points of my choosing is also very appealing to me. Choice is a very popular feature in games right now, but the choice to choose takes that idea one step further. It contributes to a much stronger sense of agency, which is the whole point of interactive fiction, right?

This would be an amazing tool to use with kids and teens, as a teacher or a parent. It's the sort of tool I would personally look for any excuse to work into a lesson or activity because it has a lot of potential to engage users with the content. It would be even better if you could create with it.

Here's what disappointed me:

You can't create with it. Yet, anyway. And honestly there's no excuse for that as far as I'm concerned. Linden Lab's other interactive storytelling platform, dio, was released about two weeks ago. It may as well have been released yesterday. There's no obvious reason to rush Versu out the door so soon after dio, and at the very least they should have taken the time to put the creation tools in instead of launching prematurely.

That's why this release feels bizarre to me, and what makes it unfair to both products. It seems like neither is really getting the attention they would need to actually flourish on their own -- because these sorts of things don't flourish without that kind of careful grooming and nurturing, even after they're released. There's a reason that things like this usually come from passionate little indie groups. To be entirely honest, LL hasn't done the best job tending any of their quirky newer releases in the ways needed to develop them into anything substantial. You can't just throw things like dio and Versu at the wall and hope they'll stick, you need to support them there until they do.

Dio rabbit hole

Given how much dio and Versu's core features seem to overlap and how close their releases are, it's also odd to me that they currently lack any sort of interconnectivity (or that potential interconnectivity doesn't appear to be on the table yet.) Why not just bring the option to use character-based storytelling into dio (and object-based interactability into Versu, for that matter) and give Versu the functionality of a dio reader/editor for iPad? Or why not let people create their stories in dio (because the idea of typing out a novella on an iPad keyboard sounds like an absolute nightmare), sell them in Versu, and kill two birds with one stone? Linden Lab did mention the eventual monetization of dio rooms, so could this be what they were hinting at? Maybe. Versu already requires an internet connection to access and play the stories (and I had to deal with a lot of weird connection errors while I was testing it out this morning), just like dio's rooms, so it's not too much of a stretch.

If Versu worked with dio and dio worked with Versu, both products would definitely be stronger for it.

Here's what I'm getting at:

I'm honestly not sure what the future holds for Versu; although it may not sound like it, I am absolutely hoping for the best. Independent of the circumstances of its release, it's a perfectly decent app. Like dio, it's an interesting platform with a lot of potential, and if you're interested in interactive storytelling you should absolutely check it out. It's free, it's fun, and with a little luck (and a little work) it will grow into something truly exceptional.

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Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.


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Metacam Oh

These choose your own adventure stories were somewhat popular/cool when I was like 6 years old in the mid 80s. They were replaced by a much better interactive fiction, they call them video games these days.

Shockwave Yareach

If you want to kill the fly with the planet-destroying antimatter axe, turn to page 93. If you want to kill the fly with the flyswatter, turn to page 22.

Now, if they created a story universe where there are a hundred characters and the 100 people wanting to play interact IN CHARACTER with each other live in a 3d virtual playscape, you will be well on the way to creating True interactive writing games. Much like WoW has servers and a finite number of people playing on that, you can do the same with a sim; when all the characters needed for one sim are taken, another sim mirroring that is used to start another parallel game. The players then live an interactive story where in addition to the daily life they live with the other characters in their world, the events which bring about conflict and change in the story universe happen to all as well.

This is within LL's level of ability. But it won't run on an iphone, so I guess I'm wasting my breath offering the idea...


"at the very least they should have taken the time to put the creation tools in instead of launching prematurely."

It's Linden Lab! What did you expect? That's their biggest LL hallmark. They do that with every single thing they develop.

"You can't just throw things like dio and Versu at the wall and hope they'll stick"

It's Linden Lab! What did you expect? That's their second biggest LL hallmark. They do that with every single thing they develop. And with Second Life they were just plain lucky that it stuck.

Iris Ophelia

@Metacam and Shockwave, I think you're both sort of missing the point of this kind of tool/game in general.

Interactive media HAS come a long way, and LL IS capable of producing much more complex games and environments, but tools like dio, inklewriter, twine, ren'py, and eventually Versu allow people who AREN'T capable of making a 3D world on their own to still tell engaging stories and share game-like concepts and ideas.

If I had an amazing interactive game idea it's incredibly unlikely that I would be able to produce that into a full mainstream gaming experience. I just don't have the skills (or the connections) required to even get of the ground. But that doesn't make that story or that interactive experience any less interesting or valuable. In a lot of cases games developed in this vein turn out to be more meaningful than even those big gorgeous full-budget blockbuster gaming titles (Christine Love, Christine Love, Christine Love.)

LL is all about providing users with relatively approachable toolboxes to create and realize things that they may not ever be able to otherwise. There is absolutely a place for things like this, and they are entirely in LL's wheelhouse. That's why I'm glad they're publishing things like dio and Versu--I only wish they would do it BETTER.

@Pienaar Not exactly. Don't forget that SL took *years* to really blossom, but they nurtured it and gave it the time it needed.

Shockwave Yareach

@Iris - I'm not against tools that give people the ability to realize visions that they would not otherwise be able to create. However, historically, Sturgeon's law still holds. And thinking that everybody out there has a story to tell doesn't mean the stories are good for most people.

Way back in the 70s, we in electronic music had a shared vision. The only reason Mozart music is known today is because his genius was LUCKY enough to be born to a daddy who commanded an orchestra. Thus Mozart had not only the education, but musicians at his beck and call. Had he been born to a Muskrat herder, we'd never have heard his tunes. Thus we set out to make music tech that would allow anyone to be able to play, and any Mozart suffering in silence could then release his gift.

The results? No mozart appeared. And many musicians of today are lazy, preferring Autotune to learning to sing and quantization to playing correctly. Just because the world COULD have a hidden wonder does not mean said wonder actually exists. Just like I could have gold nuggets in my flower bed, but more than likely all I'll find are flowers.

Just like anyone can learn to create a shared 3D realm in SL, but only a fraction of those in SL bother to learn how to do said building. And you think everybody and their cousin being able to write a story means the next great American Novel is nigh?

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